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How to deal with oppositional behavior and tantrums during lockdown?

Dr. Emma Barron, Dr. Alicia Cohen, Dr. Alexandre Hubert, Prof. Richard Delorme, Dr. Eva Stantiford

Disobedience and opposition: what is that?

Opposition is a means a child uses to learn and is a key stage in a every child's development. It is also a way for the child to test limits or seek parental attention.

These behaviors are likely to be frequent and difficult to manage during a period of strict lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. Your child may be more opposing than usual.

Don't worry, don't feel guilty. This is a common process that every parent faces.

10 strategies to prevent oppositional behavior

1. Give simple and clear instructions: it is important to have simple and clear rules that your child can understand. It is best to give one instruction at a time. These instructions should be given in a positive and respectful way, for example "please speak softly" instead of "stop shouting".

2. Prioritize your requests: choose the rules that are really necessary for good family dynamics. Be pragmatic and put in place a set of rules that are feasible considering your child’s age.

3. Anticipate requests: for example, you can tell your child "in five minutes it will be time for dinner" or "when you have finished reading this page you will have to take a bath".

4. Stay next to your child for a few seconds after the instruction is given: make sure they understand the instruction and do what they have been asked to do. You can also help them at the beginning.

5. Reinforce your child's motivation: if some of the instructions are difficult for your child to carry out, you can draw up a table with 2-3 simple instructions to be followed per day, giving away points or tokens for every day the instruction is completed (see the " token savings" sheet).

6. Respect the framework every day - Do not contradict yourself with what you said the day before: your child will not understand if you scold him for a behavior if you did not react similarly the day before.

7. Praise and encourage positive behaviors: if your child follows the rules, praise him. This is the best way to maintain good behavior. Over time, the rules will be followed consistently and become a routine.

8. Avoid finding yourself in conflict with your spouse when establishing life rules at home: it is important to try and anticipate the educational rules you want to put in place at home. They should be discussed between both parents, if possible, beforehand (for example, in the evening when children are in bed) for an agreement to be reached. There is usually a “stricter” parent and a "cooler" parent. Try to find a compromise and trust your significant other. If that doesn't work, then it's never too late to change the rules.

9. Use humor - encourage de-escalation: avoid direct confrontation. Humor often breaks down your child's opposition dynamics. His rigidity often leads him to oppose you. By using humor or by changing the subject or activity, your child will be more accepting of your strategies.

10. Avoid humiliating and irrevocable words: this is a very important point. Don't criticize the person criticize the behavior, for example "I don't like it when you don't eat properly". This also allows the child to understand what he or she has not done well and needs to improve. Any words that could humiliate or denigrate your child ("you're a loser" or "you're a real idiot") should be banned. This reinforces the poor self-image that the child has in these opposing situations. It may even reinforce the opposition itself ("Why should I listen when everyone thinks I'm a loser?").

What to do when opposition is already there? How do I deal with it when I am confined with the whole family?

1. Establish physical and eye contact: if the child disobeys you, approach the child without threatening him with your physical presence. It is important to be at the child's level and make eye contact. You can also make physical contact such as holding hands if necessary. Once you have his attention you can then explain what he should not do and offer him an alternative.

2. React in a graduated way according to the importance of the disobedience: for example, take away a toy, tablet, etc. for a short and limited period of time (a few minutes) and explain why. After this time, you can give it back to him. If he repeats the behavior you have forbidden, you can take away his toy (or what you have previously taken away) for a slightly longer period of time. In case of anger you can offer a quiet time (5 -10 minutes) for him to calm down.

3. Regulate your reaction and stick to it: very often, we tend to want to set strong limits for our children: "You will be deprived of video games for a whole week" "You will not be allowed to call your friends for the whole week". Avoid punishment that you can't keep up with. If you decide to impose a punishment, it should be measured and achievable. Otherwise your child will understand that your punishments are only words and this reinforces the idea of impunity and the fact that he can carry on with the unwanted behavior. Remain firm but fair and give priority to reward over punishment.

If a tantrum occurs, how will I be able to manage it during the period of lockdown?

Lockdown will put the family through a lot more stress than usual. The whole family is under a lot of tension, trying to manage frustrations. Therefore, it is not impossible for your child, who is also facing frustrating situations (which are potential triggers) to have tantrums or rage during this time.

They will therefore have to be managed in the best possible way, in order to preserve family harmony during lockdown. The key message is not to "escalate" during the crisis, i.e. to react like a mirror to your child.

Here are some behavioral strategies to implement if you are in such a situation.

10 strategies for managing the crisis

1. Remaining calm in front of your child who insults and hits you is far from simple. Your child will try to drag you into his tantrum by shouting, provoking you, following you around the house until you react.

2. Apply a time-out: limit interaction with your child by putting him in his room or in another room. If he refuses to go by himself, you can accompany him. Be careful, this phase is often difficult. Try not to talk too much and don't hurt your child while accompanying him. In general, the child will follow you easily if you move around.

3. If he does not respect this time-out, you can try to close the door by explaining to the child that this time to calm down is necessary. Do not try to negotiate with the child through the door. Do not intervene again unless the child is in danger.

4. If he still does not respect this time-out, and he knocks on the door, you can enter the room, sit in a chair and pretend to read. Pretend not to see him, pretend to be busy looking at a book or newspaper. Children usually hate it when their parents are indifferent to their crisis. Don't try to negotiate with him. Stay calm. Don't intervene again unless you think the child is in danger.

5. Avoid spreading the crisis to the whole family. Try to ask the other children to go to their rooms or another room. Avoid fighting between adults. When there is a crisis like this, everyone argues very quickly.

6. Other siblings should not be present during the crisis. In this time of lockdown, it is not possible to get them out of the house, so try to put them in another room.

7. If you are two adults at home, consider taking turns assisting the child in crisis. This also gives the child a chance to breathe. You will usually feel under a lot of pressure yourself.

8. Do not talk too much during the crisis. Keep it simple. This is not the time to ask your child how he feels, nor to lecture him. Your child is overwhelmed by his emotions, he is not accessible to discussion. The more you stimulate him, the longer the crisis will last.

9. After the crisis has passed (phew), once you are cooled off, the situation must be debriefed calmly, once you and your child are in a stable emotional state.

10. Avoid punishment to avoid another crisis, because the child does not have enough control over his behavior. Punishment may increase his anger and lower his self-esteem. Favor reparation, by allowing your child to repair the material damage he has caused during the crisis. Give your child community service tasks, such as setting the table or vacuuming. Accompany him on the first tasks.

Is the anger I felt as a parent normal?

You may have felt anger towards your child, guilt if you lost control over your behavior during the crisis, but also empathy for your suffering child, or even a sense of discouragement towards your role as a parent. These emotions can also overlap, and you have to accept them.

Lockdown is a stressful time for the whole family, but it can also be a good opportunity to do family activities that you don't have time for during school periods. You put up a time schedule with specified times for homework/work and times for individual or family leisure and activities.

Translated by Dr. Elie KHOURY (psychiatrist)

48 Boulevard Serurier, 75019  Paris France

©2020 by Dr. Benjamin Landman. Child Psychiatry, Robert Debre Hospital - Paris